We picked up where we left off in the exhibit hall. Once we'd seen all the gizmos, we stepped into a second hall. The focus in this one was automotive. All the major American and Japanese makers had booths, with a smattering of German and Italian. Land Rover also made an appearance. The other vendors were hawking miracle fuel additives, crankcase goo, paint sealants, wax, off-brand stereos ("Why Pay More?"), radar detectors, and defensive driving courses. This last one intrigued me. I considered myself to be a skilled defensive driver, but I wanted to develop better offensive driving talent. Given our stable of vehicles, I felt it only right I should know how to hot dog it a little, competently. I spoke with a rep and was told one of their Secret Service/cop/spook driving courses would just about be what I wanted. The courses were held at Sears Point Raceway up in Sonoma County, north of San Francisco. My class would last five days. I was given the impression I could walk around with my shoulder holster and Beretta showing and no one would think it was a bit out of place: I would be in a small minority of civilians taking the course. "Most cops think they have driving skills. We disabuse them of that belief," I was told. "Highway Patrol are somewhat more skilled than city cops, but they still just spent some time lead-footing it and weaving through some pylons. Anyone taking this course will learn how to use a car aggressively, without endangering random citizens. The Secret Service loves us. The Navy SEALS love us. High end private security love us. This is not a course for pantywaists."
"Huh," I pondered. "So there's a good chance I'll be the only civilian in the course? The only one there for personal enrichment? Great. Really, I don't care if everyone else thinks I'm some sort of dilettante, as long as they keep their fucking mouths shut."
"Don't worry, sir. It is assumed you're there to take the subject matter seriously. Your personal interest in being there isn't anyone's concern, so long as you work."
"Do we bring our own vehicle?" I asked.
The rep said, "If you have something you would like to put on the road course or the skid pad, you are welcome to. So far as training goes, you'll be using our vehicles. This is probably just as well, as you'll be swapping paint with your fellow students on occasion. What did you want to drive?"
"That's the problem, I'm not sure. I have four vehicles to choose from: a modified Cadillac Fleetwood, a 1970 Plymouth Sport Fury, a '71 Oldsmobile Cutlass 442, and a hot rod 1964 Ford Falcon, which is supercharged. The Fleetwood has a hot motor and sport suspension. I'd probably want to bring the Falcon, just for shits and giggles. It's probably the most fun to drive."
"Quite a collection you have, sir. If you're used to vehicles with weight and hot engines, you'll do fine adapting to our fleet. We use Chevy Caprice sedans for training. Not exactly drag racers, but they're tough and see the job through. We'll occasionally have someone come through who has never driven anything heavier than a Nissan. They are at a disadvantage."
"Why do the SEALS take the course?" I asked. "I thought they were supposed to be super soldiers, nothing more."
"They are planning ahead," said the rep. "They are intending to do some form of security work, be it for the government or a private firm. Some become the personal drivers for military brass. Others intend to join the Secret Service as soon as their commission is up. The SEALS are easy to spot, they're the ones with the guns on them."
I decided to not mention my own weapon, hidden from view by my denim. I checked the class schedule and saw there was a course in the second week of September, at the end of summer. We were in the third week of June now. If the timing for all the production work for "Good Girl/Bad Girl" came out right, that would be about the same week I was supposed to be taking my mandatory seven days off, a brief vacation where I was instructed to do nothing work-related. Angel and Vinny would mind the store. Well, can't get further from thinking about work than spending five days learning to drive like an assassin. Depending on the practicality of what I learned, I would be passing on pointers to Bekka and Jane.
I asked about lodging and was told to make reservations at a motel in Novato or Sonoma. Neither location was right up the block from the raceway, but were a simple drive away. The rep elaborated and said that anything I wanted to have with me --- cigarettes, favorite brand of soda, whatever --- should be brought in the morning. There were no services around the raceway, although the school would provide lunch for us on all five days.
"So it's not a racing course?" asked Bekka as we wandered towards lunch.
"No. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it. It's a course for those who have to both protect their passengers and also use a car as an offensive weapon. I'll learn to operate a vehicle like the President's own limo driver. It's a course in offensive driving, basically."
"Are you sure you can take this course? You don't have to be a cop or something?"
"I reiterated to the rep that I was just some random schmuck who wanted to learn how to operate his hot rods better. He seemed fine with that. Although I will be surrounded by Navy SEALS and spooks of various ilk. Whatever. I won't fuck with them if they don't fuck with me."
"Why would people taking the course fuck with you?" asked Bekka.
"Because I'll be a civilian," I explained. "Okay, I'm taking the course to learn how to handle the various hot rods in my life better. But the fact that this course just sounds like fun can't be denied. I have no business being there. I don't work security, I'm not a guard, I'm not a cop, I'm not a spook. All the cops and spooks will want to know why I'm there, who do I work for. What do I tell them, I'm in the mafia and I want to be the best driver in the family? I'm afraid they'll think I'm some kind of clown, and treat me as such, which will piss me off. I'd just as soon not have to go toe to toe with a Navy SEAL."
Bekka said, "You're missing the obvious. You have to take care of your celebrity wife. Hey, it makes perfect sense for you to take the course, viewed in that light."
I smiled. "Ooh, good idea. If they ask why I think a porn star needs heavy protection, I'll take off my shirt and show them my bullet scars, particularly the ones from the AR-15. We already have had two people try to kill me at work --- three, if you count Rick --- and both expressed an unhealthy interest in Becky Page. I carry a legal handgun which I am proficient with, the driving course is just another bit of precaution on our part. And it'll be fun."
"There you go."
"Hey..... Maybe I should take Terry with me? After all, if she's gonna be your bodyguard...."
"Except we almost never drive," said Bekka. "Whenever we go anywhere, we always seem to take the putts. The only exception to this is going to Safeway for the weekly shopping. But when we go into La Jolla, or hit the Hi-Lo, or visit the mall, or...."
"Wait a minute. You guys have been to the Hi-Lo without me?"
"Yes, twice. It was the middle of the day and we were feeling restless, but didn't feel like taking a full cruise anywhere. We dropped in, said hi to various underemployed Angels who were hanging around, nursing beers, had a couple drinks, and split. It was very quiet. Not even the mamas were around."
"And they didn't give you any grief for showing up on a couple putts?" I asked.
"They were neither elated nor annoyed," said Bekka. Nobody spoke a word to me at all about my purple beast. King got into tech talk with Terry over her machine, like the sort of gearing and engine modifications she's going to do to it when she makes that Dyna Glide into an outlaw machine. In a way, our presence seemed to be viewed as perfectly natural. It was like, hey, Becky and Terry are here, and that's fine, why wouldn't they be welcome here? Babe, I believe our presence at the Hi-Lo will be taken as part of the natural order of things. We're viewed as friends, not outsiders."
After we ate it was time to head for the midway. I was looking forward to it, as I considered it the white trash version of a Renaissance Fair. The rides! The games! The greasy crap to eat! The noise, the smells, the people.... Especially the people. And especially the carneys, God love 'em. I'd run across carnival workers in my life, and was bitterly fascinated by these human disaster areas. I took it as a given that every carny ever placed on Earth had a drug or alcohol problem, they kept running out. Unbathed, ill-mannered, horny, deviant, broke, and utterly lacking in forward momentum, carneys were the ones to assemble the rides, run the games, deep-fry the food, and do it all while loaded on anything they could get their hands on.
I talked to a cab driver from Modesto once. To him, the aesthetic of carnival workers was simple. A carnival would come into town, setting up in a vast parking lot somewhere. The day they arrived, the cab driver would make run after run from wherever the carnival was to the emergency room of the nearest hospital. All these fares would be in terrible shape: shaking, coughing, nauseous. They were all heroin addicts, they were all dope sick, and were hitting the ER to get methadone. Once dosed, they would head back to the carnival location to assemble the thrill rides. Since this onslaught only happened the first day, the cabbie assumed all these itinerant junkies managed to score their smack, and keep high for the duration of the carnival's presence. "I wouldn't go on a carnival ride if I was wearing a helmet and a Kevlar body suit," the cab driver told me.
We walked the first row of games and offers to Test Your Skill. We knew better than to play, it was safe to assume they were all rigged. Besides, we felt no urge to win a plush toy, coke mirror with the Judas Priest logo on it, or a cheaply made wallet. There were a couple booths where you could just bite the bullet and buy the cheap crap. One had both Becky Page posters and t-shirts. It took a half second to realize the t-shirts were bootlegs.
I walked up to the bored looking cracker queen at the register and said, "Who does your purchasing? I need to conduct some business with them."
"Whatcha mean?" the queen asked, cracking her gum.
"Well, you're carrying a bootlegged product. It's a product I happen to have an interest in. Basically, I need to know the name of the person who decided to use bootlegged material, so I can drag them into court and beat their ass like a gong. If he's lucky, I'll let him keep the clothes on his back. So who is it, and where do I find him?"
"What bootlegs?" came the surly response.
"Come this way," I purred, and tugged on her arm hard enough to shift her. I led her to the rack of Becky Page t-shirts. "Okay, first of all, the designs are all missing my studio logo. That's a big tip-off. Next, you can see where the seam of the silk screen was. The company we use wouldn't be so sloppy. Also, that cheap-ass silkscreen ink is going to start peeling in three washes. The real shirts are made to last. Now, the the contact information I asked for, please."
"You gotta call main office. They just send me the shit to sell, I don't care where it comes from. What's the difference, anyway?"
"You are selling a flawed copy of an item I sell, pretending it's real. You are stealing from me by putting these unauthorized copies out to sell, and weakening the reputation of my product by having yours be so shoddy. Am I clear?"
"So what am I supposed to do about it?" asked the queen.
"You personally? All you need to do is remove the shirts from that rack, so they can't be sold. That, and provide me with contact information for who does the purchasing around here. Changes and amends are going to be made.at the purchasing level. Right now, I'm pissed. I want to sue the responsible parties so hard they lose everything and end up eating bugs out of the grilles of their cars to survive."
"Just who the hell are you, anyway?"
I reached in a pocket of my denim and handed her an Inana Productions business card, one with my name on it. The queen stared at the card, then flipped it over and stared at the blank side for just as long. I said, "In case you're not familiar, Inana Productions is the studio that makes and releases all of Becky Page's movies. I am the C.O.O. of Inana. I also write and produce the movies she appears in. And in case you don't think there's enough connection, I'm also her fucking husband. So you'd better believe I've got a stake in tracking down any shit-stain that puts my wife's likeness on a shirt without her permission. Now cough up, who do I contact at your main office?"
The queen glared, then reached down under the register and pulled out a black hardback folder. She leafed through it and said, "His name is Bill Preston. He's at the main office in Sarasota. Start with him, I guess. I dunno. I shouldn't even be here. They pulled me off of ring toss to do this shit when the bitch that was here got herself knocked up and ran back home to mommy. Sue me, I don't care."
"Thank you for your time. Break down that rack. Good day."
I walked next door, where Bekka was pitching loose change at a rotating selection of cake stands. The coins seemed to want to skip straight across. This made me suspicious. I vaulted the barrier and walked up to the rotating table. Some greasy guy in a shirt that said "Boardwalk Entertainment" asked me what the fuck I thought I was doing. I stiff-armed him in the chest, and picked up one of the cake stands. Felt the top. It was greasy. Smelling it, I detected the odor of WD-40. The greasy guy approached again, so I grabbed him by the neck and walked the both of us up to where Bekka stood, eyeing me curiously.
"It's a fucking scam," I said. "The plates are all greased, they're coated with WD-40."
"Gimme that back!" yelled the carny, lunging for the cake stand in my hand. I set it down and changed my grip on the carny, grabbing his collar instead. Bekka picked up and examined the cake stand, including smelling it. Realization crept across her face.
"Got anything to say for yourself?" I asked the carny.
"I'm only doing my job, so fuck you," was his response.
"No, fuck you. Lemme tell you what is going to happen. You're going to pull the curtain on your booth, then you're going to get some paper towels and clean off all those plates. Then you can open back up again. If you don't do what I'm telling you, I will stand directly in front of your booth and tell anyone going past that you're a cheating, thieving motherfucker, and I can prove it. I'll just take another cake stand and pass it around among those watching. And see, then you'll have a whole mob angry at you. If you have the oh so original idea of physically attacking me, I've got five inches and fifty pounds on you. I'm also a hell of a lot meaner. Got all that, or do I need finger puppets?"
The carny snatched up the cake stand, gave me the finger, and brought down the curtain. Bekka looked at me and said, "So are we going to systematically shut down every single game at the fair?"
"I'm not worried about the ones that were born crooked. Like throwing the basketball through the hoop. Doesn't take a genius to tell the hoop is smaller than it should be, it will barely let the ball pass through. Or throwing the softballs into the basket. Funny how the balls always bounce right the hell out again. Nope, nothing funny going on there. Fuck these people anyway. They're giving away and selling cheap crap. We're rich. Why would we want anything cheap? Come on, let's go figure out which ride has the drunkest operator, then get on it."
We were scoping out rides when I saw a booth to Test My Skill sitting all by itself. It was noisy: people were blasting away at targets using beat-up looking .22 rifles. Okay, I can get into this. I walked up to an empty spot and asked the carny, "How much, and what's the goal?"
The carny replied, "Three bucks for five shots. Get five in the money, win a big stuffed animal. Get four shots, a small animal. Three bucks."
I laid down a few ones. The carny handed me a cheap carbine. I sighted, and aimed, pop. Well off. I adjusted my aim and tried again. I was staying on the paper at least, but what the sights were telling me and where the shots were actually going were two different things. With nothing to lose, I tried to reconcile the sights and the actual aim of the rifle. Now empty, I laid down more money for the carny. He shoved a fresh clip in my rifle and away I went. I figured out that by sighting about a foot and an half to the northwest of the target, I stood a fighting chance of being in the money. Ridiculous. The rifles were gimmicked.
I dropped a little more money, smiled at the carny, and said, "I'm gonna win a big stuffed animal this time, I promise. Wanna bet?"
The carny slapped in a fresh clip, gave me a patronizing smile, and said, "Fire away, sir."
I set the bogus rifle down on the counter, reached under my left arm, and pulled out my Beretta. I sighted down the barrel, aligning the three dots. I heard an alarmed-sounding carny say, "Sir, what....?"
I cleared five shots, relaxed and in stance. I was used to a fifteen yard target, this was more like a seven yard target. Piece of cake. After my fifth shot, I realized it was quiet. The carny was gawking at me with his mouth open, and my fellow marksmen had stopped firing when they heard the solid boom of 9mm ammunition going through classic Italian engineering. I laid the Beretta down on the counter and said to the carny, "Bring my target in. I believe I got all five in the money. Becky, what stuffed animal do you want?"
"The polar bear is cute," Bekka answered.
"Sir, you can't just use your own gun," gabbled the carny.
"Where is it written?" I asked, tucking the pistol away again. "I don't see anything up saying use of personal firearms is forbidden, that you have to be stuck with the inaccurate chunks of garbage on display here. The sights on this piece of shit are off so bad it can only be on purpose. These rifles are rigged."
"We know the sights aren't perfect, c'mon, these things get knocked around a lot...."
"That rifle was more than knocked around. I could have used it to dig a latrine and the sights wouldn't be off by as much as they are. Quit trying to kid me, and pull in my target."
The carny drew in the target. Sure enough, five out of five. My fellow marksmen, who still hadn't fired a shot since I'd finished shooting, applauded quietly. The carny squinted down the range, and muttered, "No way." He turned on a flashing red light which, according to large and simple signs posted up, meant there was a man on the range. Everyone put your rifles down and wait. The carny trotted down to where my target had hung, cried, "Oh my God!" and began trotting back towards me.
"You blew holes in the backstop!" cried the carny. "This lane is missing big chunks of wood! What the hell were you firing, anyway?"
"Huh, sorry about that," I responded. "The gun is a Beretta 92FS. It fires 9mm ammunition. My gun holds a fifteen round clip of hollow-point ammunition. Yeah, I guess that hollow-point ammo would tear things up a bit. Again, sorry. Now, how about grabbing that polar bear for my wife?"
The carny stared at me, then turned and grabbed the polar bear, handing it to me. I in turn handed it to Bekka, who squeezed and snuggled it.... Then wrinkled her nose and said, "It smells like burning plastic."
I said, "Hey Bekka, your turn to try and win something. See if you can get five out of five with your Colt."
"Say, not a bad idea," said Bekka. She reached under her blouse and unsheathed her Colt Defender, an eight shot pistol loaded with hollow-point nine ammunition.
"No! No way!" cried the carny. "You'll destroy the whole backboard! Please, c'mon man, you won the bear, okay?"
Bekka said, "Well.... I am more in the mood to inspect the freak show. And none of the other animals are as cute as the polar bear, even if he does smell funny. Okay." She swept her gun back under her blouse to her waist holster.
"Son, come here a minute, I want to talk to you about the sights on this rifle," said a man whose belt buckle announced his name was Vern to the carny. The three other shooters made "Me too" noises. Vern produced a small screwdriver from somewhere and began gesturing at both ends of the rifle sights with it. The carny faced his (armed) accusers with naked trepidation.
"I'd say your work is done here, Mr. Schneider," said Bekka. "Thank you for the bear."
"Nothing to it," I replied. "What are you going to do about that stink?"
"Throw it in a big laundromat dryer on low, with about nineteen dryer sheets. Hopefully that will help some. Then I'm keeping it in the trunk of the Falcon. When I drive up to see Angela and Chrissie in Encino, I'll put it in the passenger seat, belted in, so I can use the diamond lanes."
"Shall we go look at freaks?" I asked.